Happiness Advice from the Academy

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Yesterday the dear Allosaurus approvingly quoted John Stuart Mill in a comment: “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” In one sense, I think Mill is right. Happy people don’t typically sit around interrogating themselves about their moods. Happiness is self-evident, and if you’re asking yourself whether you’re happy, then it’s likely that you’re not. Constant introspection is the sad property of the miserable.

In another sense, though, I disagree with Mill. The quote above suggests that thinking consciously about happiness scares it off — that you might be happy without knowing it, and you might stay happy if you leave well enough alone. This doesn’t match with my experience. When I ask the question, it’s usually long after my happiness has drained away — that is, the question itself is the result of misery.

No, when it comes to whether we should consciously pursue happiness, I side with Gretchen Rubin in that I think that it’s an excellent idea to make a study of happiness. Seeking happiness is a moral good, in fact, for two reasons. With a very few exceptions, we’re happy when we’re conducting ourselves well (saving the planet and such). Also, moods are highly contagious. Therefore, insofar as our associates are not mean-spirited grinches, our happiness cheers up the people around us.

This brings me to one of my few bits of personal wisdom concerning happiness, which came to me this morning as I was applying a facial mask. My prevailing thought of “I hate my skin” gave way briefly to the following idea: I’m often happy only in retrospect. Or, to put it another way, I do look back at past times in my life and think, Wow, I had all the raw ingredients of happiness then.

For instance, when I was a grad student, a professor told me that I should enjoy studying for my qualifying exams, because I would look back on it as one of the happiest times of my life. After all, it’s one of the few times in your life when you’ll be paid to read books on subjects that fascinate you. This horrified me, naturally, because I spent those four months in a perpetual anxiety attack, convinced that my committee members would interrogate me about proper names and specific dates, two things that I absolutely cannot remember. Once I passed with distinction, I felt the proper appreciation for the luxury of nonstop reading, and now I do, in fact, remember that as a happy time.

I’m running out of time to write, but I’d like to pass on another bit of academic wisdom from French professor Leslie Rabin:

“When I was a grad student, I thought that I would be happy when I got my degree. Once I had my degree, I thought I would be happy when I had a tenure-track job. Then I thought I would be happy when I had tenure. Once I got tenure, I realized that the truth is, you’ll never be happy.” Oh, my. I prefer to think that you will never be perfectly secure and satisfied, which is a different matter.

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